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South Salt Lake Journal

Mural Fest’s exploding popularity raises challenges for Arts Council

Mar 31, 2023 01:11PM ● By Zak Sonntag

Street art brings energy to industrial city scape. (Zak Sonntag/City Journals)

South Salt Lake’s internationally known “outdoor gallery” is adding to its collection as the sixth annual Mural Fest is set to transform more post-industrial cityscape into big, vibrant wall art.

Yet the festival’s outsized success, which has attracted international attention, now raises questions about the program’s sustainability and has brought unanticipated challenges to the city’s small Arts Council, including a deluge of applicants.

In its first year, 23 artists applied to paint murals—this year’s applications reached 593.

The Fest aims to add 10 new murals every year during the month of May, and if all goes to plan, next month will push the program across the halfway mark of its 100-murals goal—part of the city’s larger ambition to establish itself as a hub for creative business.

But this year the SSL Arts Council has run up against a different type of wall as it’s struggled to find property owners willing to offer their buildings for use as outdoor canvas.

“I am concerned about the sustainability of the program. Finding the walls in the downtown area is challenging with the development. I’d like to see more developers get on board,” said Lesley Allen, director of the SSL Arts Council, during a presentation to city leaders. 

The city is home to an abundance of art-ready walls, but a combination of redevelopment uncertainty and ambivalent attitudes toward street art has made securing facades for this year’s Fest especially difficult, according to Allen, who spoke with the City Journals.

“Some older property owners have this idea in their mind that it’s just graffiti style art. When they think of a mural they think it's going to look like some gang lettering or whatever,” said Allen, whose trying to reshape community attitudes toward wall art by selling property owners on the advantages.

“It’s taken time to educate property owners and businesses about the benefits of murals, and they're starting to see what it's doing to transform the neighborhood. It's bringing people in and it's getting businesses a lot of attention.”

Artistic license is double-sided at Mural Fest

Skip Marsh is a third generation screen printer and businessman whose Technical Services and Supply sells screen printing equipment throughout the Intermountain area—and he’s one of SSL’s business owners with a glowing perspective of Mural Fest.

“I think (murals) improve the appearance of the buildings and revitalize the community to a degree. It gives a little character to South Salt Lake, especially in the industrial area. It’s all very positive,” he said.

In 2021, he worked with artist Miles Toland whose mural Air and Aether brought new energy to Marsh’s 75-year-old building at the West Temple location that’s housed the family business since 1952.

“I thoroughly think he did an amazing job,” Marsh said of Toland.

Nonetheless, Marsh understands why some businesses demure from murals, alluding to the inherently subjective value of art and the way property owners have unique aesthetic preferences. 

“When I look at some of the other murals that have been done, there's some that I like and some that I don't,” he said, expressing that while he loves his mural, “some of the other stuff out there is different, which is not bad, but I just don't happen to care for it.”

Had Marsh not been able to pair with Toland, he may have declined to participate in Mural Fest; that reality poses a challenge for Allen, who must find ways to match property owners with muralists whose aesthetic style fits their own.

This can be tricky for a few reasons. 

The Fest is committed to giving muralists broad artistic license, which Allen says is critical for attracting talent on the program’s relatively small budget.

This year Mural Fest will cost around $75,000—making it the Arts Council’s single biggest outlay and gobbling up almost half its annual programing budget. 

Even still, it’s not enough to pay artists competitively.

For instance, going rates for professional muralist are between $20 and $30 a square foot, which means a five-story wall like the one painted at Central Point Condominiums during the 2022 Mural Fest could alone cost up to $60,000 on commission.

By comparison the highest artist’s allotment at this year’s Fest is only $4,000.

Additionally, as with Central Point, some facades present technical challenges not all artists are capable of; along with working at heights, artists sometimes need specialized skillsets to incorporate windows and relief features.

Street cred

As the program’s reputation spreads, sought-after artists have agreed to produce at cut-rates simply to be featured in an outdoor gallery of growing renown.

“When I was going through the applications, I could not believe how many talented artists [were interested], and the amazing murals they're doing. It’s just crazy how much talent there is out there,” Allen said. 

A major force driving the fests popularity is the artists’ own promotions.

“I attribute the growth of mural fest to a lot of things,” said Allen, pointing to a new website and marketing campaign. “But I think the biggest thing is word of mouth, and the artists and their posts and followers they have…in the mural community.”

Veronica Zak

One muralist that’s helped generate excitement and visibility for the program is Veronica Zak, a multi-genre artist whose twice painted at Mural Fest.

Zak’s talents as an artist manifested early, and painting awards in high school in her hometown of Cleveland, Ohio led to a scholarship at The Savannah College of Art and Design, where she studied animation and fine arts.

“I would have liked to be really good at math or science, but every time I picked up a paintbrush it worked out really well for me, so [a creative life] just became a no brainer.”

She relocated to Utah in the 2010s on the strength of a growing arts scene, along with the state’s outdoor beauty, which has made its way into pieces like her Red Rock mural currently on display downtown. 

Zak believes murals are a decisive force for community building, and says they’ve made SSL’s creative zone more welcoming and neighborly.

“I think there’s a fine line between a cool, hip underground artsy neighborhood or a neighborhood stricken by poverty, and I think that fine line is the presence of art,” Zak said, pointing to her hometown of Cleveland as an example. 

“It’s a fine line between an artsy neighborhood and a run-down neighborhood. It’s just that little bit of extra effort and the murals elevate it slightly above.”

Zak’s style tends toward realism. However, mural work has challenged her to paint in different styles that make sense for the scale and purpose of the medium. 

It’s also challenged her physically.

“This is a massive feat of physical labor. My arms and back will be sore for weeks,” Zak said.

‘Universal language’

Mural Fest’s outsize success stands as an example of how a tiny department in a small city government can punch above its weight as the event has helped put SSL on the wider cultural map.

One of the ways the Arts Council achieves this is by structuring itself as a 501(c)(3) while remaining a subsidiary of the city, which allows it to draw on resources from the mayor’s office while simultaneously applying for independent, project-based grants, according to Allen.

For now, Allen, the sole full-time employee of the Arts Council, is racing to find walls with the hope that this year’s Mural Fest will be its biggest ever, then use that momentum to push the mission onward. 

“When people see art in their neighborhood it helps them identify with where they live,” Allen said. 

“Art has such a way of empowering people. It's a universal language that can [overcome] a lot of the differences we have in however we view the world.”